Daily Local News: East Bradford leads by example with Crebilly Farm referendum
In 1998, East Bradford residents were the first municipality in Pennsylvania to pass a referendum to fund open space. Two years later, township voters elected to raise the township Earned Income Tax on open space to .25 percent
Since then, East Bradford has preserved about 1,300 acres of land through titled property and easements.
Now, Snook and other East Bradford residents are encouraging Westtown residents to save Crebilly Farm — a treasured property linked the the Revolutionary War — from development with a similar levy on themselves. With a Nov. 8 referendum, voters there would decide whether to increase their property taxes and agree to save the iconic farm from development.
By voting “Yes,” voters will tell township officially that they prefer paying to preserve the property for perpetuity.
Snook noted that more than 30 municipalities in Chester County have enacted such a tax.
“I understand the concern about a new tax,” Snook said. “But nothing about this referendum or its ultimate costs is new.
“With so many examples, why speculate?”
Mandie Cantlin is the East Bradford Township Manager and while she wasn’t working at the township in 1998, she said that the open space referendum then was “a significant leap of faith” or a “defining moment for East Bradford.”
Township taxpayers have invested $21 million. This does not include acquisitions made with grants.
“We would have been a much different community if our preserved land had become residential communities,” Cantlin said. “Open space, parks, and trails have become defining characteristics of this township and I think they are traits the vast majority of our residents value deeply.”
Vince Pompo is a former supervisor in East Bradford and a lawyer. He talked about leveraging projected future tax income to borrow for land acquisition. He said that with development, like Toll Brothers had envisioned for Crebilly Farm before those plans were scrapped, comes added costs for additional public works upgrades, police coverage and other township provided services.
Jack Stefferud is senior director of land protection for Natural Lands. The conservancy is working to save Crebilly Farm from bulldozers.
“(East Bradford) using its own money to leverage grants is a model that other townships after them have followed,” Stefferud said. “This is not new stuff.
“Natural Lands has an excellent track record at helping communities like East Bradford and others secure matching grants from state, county, and other sources. In fact, other than the city of Philadelphia, we are by far the biggest recipient of funds from both the (state) Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and Chester County.”
The decision is seemingly in the hands of voters.
“In the case of Westtown, obtaining grant funding isn’t going to be an obstacle in saving Crebilly Farm,” Stefferud said. “However, if the voters don’t pass the referendum on Nov. 8—well then the project is dead in the water.”
Cantlin said that for 2022, East Bradford is projected to receive about $1.2 million from its earned income tax levy. The balance of all outstanding open space loans or notes, as of January 2023, will be $6,870,000. The East Bradford gross tax rate is lower than Westtown’s while both townships have populations of about 10,000.
Historically, East Bradford has allotted $20,000 annually for maintenance of open space, and that cost is expected to increase as the township invests more in land stewardship. East Bradford also earns income from the mowing of hay.
Critics have said at Westtown public meetings that the township should not be preserving land on its own dime that residents from other townships will use.
Snook said that preservation benefits the entire community
“Westtown is not alone in proposing to pay for open space that benefits the larger community,” Snook said. He said that neighbors East Bradford and Birmingham, along with nearby Chadds Ford townships have stepped in to preserve significant portions of the Brandywine Battlefield.
“Drive down New Street into Thornbury and Birmingham, or Birmingham Road, and witness the results of other township’s open space efforts,” Snook said.
On April 4, the township agreed to purchase 208 acres of Crebilly Farm for $100,000 per acre, or $20.8 million. Most of the rest of the 322 acres will be subdivided into four individual lots, each with a single home, and preserved with a perpetual conservation easement.
The township will need to secure approximately 75 percent for the purchase price from county, state, and federal grant programs by March 31, 2023. The rest would be paid for by taxpayers.
The township is proposing a blended tax increase, with 50 percent of the cost funded by Earned Income Tax and 50 percent by real estate taxes.
If voters agree, the earned income tax will increase from 1 percent to 1.08 percent and the real estate tax would go from 3.5 mills to 3.92 mills. A mill is a tax levy of one tenth of one percent of assessed property value.
According to a draft release issued by the township, the taxes would depend equally on a household’s income and the assessment value of property.
According to the release, if a household income is $100,000, an extra $80 annually would be collected through the income tax. Exceptions such as retirement funds, social security and others who are not generating earned income are not affected by the proposed EIT raise.
With the median assessed value of Westtown homes at $250,000, average homeowners would pay an extra $105 per year.